THE BLOG
05/25/2010 01:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting a Jump on the Next Big Disaster

By Arrietta Chakos

The best disaster preparedness in the world is happening in San Francisco, which has quietly developed public-private partnerships that can swing into action and save lives, when and if the predicted "Big One" hits.

Why is San Francisco's work so important as a world model? Every dollar spent on pre-emergency safety planning saves four times that amount in post-disaster costs, according to a 2006 federal study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council. When people die in disasters and buildings, bridges and levees fail, it is too late to undo the harm. Learning the lessons of acting in time, before a catastrophe, changes that deadly equation.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, San Francisco officials visited New Orleans to see the community-driven disaster recovery happening in the Broadmoor neighborhood. There, neighbors, local churches and philanthropic funders worked together to rebuild storm-damaged homes, to establish a new charter school and to create a safe community corridor with a repaired neighborhood center and library. The local community raised every recovery dollar on its own.

San Francisco is learning disaster safety lessons from the January Haiti earthquake as well. Young people and new technology platforms changed the disaster problem-solving calculus: the Ushahidi, Crisis Commons and Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) networks applied state-of the-art tech systems to humanitarian relief efforts. Real time disaster mapping, crowd sourced information and focused disaster response teams improved how traditional responders handled the catastrophe conditions. This emergent leadership brokered quick, effective solutions. People acted in time, and Bay Area officials are paying attention.

In San Francisco, the community is acting ahead of time. Neighborhood and thought leaders are crucial partners. San Franciscans are finalizing earthquake-safe housing standards and incentives for safety improvements, as they define an innovative "resilient city" concept. Elected officials debate mandatory safety improvements for apartment buildings that could collapse in an earthquake. San Francisco risk managers and their insurers map disaster-related financial recovery plans. Earthquake engineers strategize with regional utility companies about how to get the lights back on, the water flowing, and transportation moving after the next disaster. Youth leaders connect area residents to their web 2.0 neighborhoods. S.F State University student organizers survey the Excelsior and Castro neighborhoods on disaster-readiness, part of the Neighborhood Empowerment Network program.

San Francisco's advance planning is a good model for our disaster-prone world. Whether we're hit with an oil spill, earthquake or rising seas, preventing the worst harms by acting now saves lives, builds social capital and creates resilient communities.

Arrietta Chakos directs the Acting in Time Disaster Recovery Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.